Q1. Who is the Hindu God?
A. There is no such thing as a Hindu God. Hindus believe in the same God as Christians, Muslims, Jews and people of other religions do. Hindus call God by countless male and female names, for example, Ishwar, Pramatma, Bhagwan, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Mahadeva, Prabhu, Parmeshwar and Shakti. Hindus also believe that people of other cultures and languages understand this one God in their own way, and each religion has its own path to this one God.
Q2. What is the definition of God in Hinduism?
A. According to Hindu thought, God is: the infinite Supreme Reality; the Absolute Truth; a divine conscience energy from which all energies flow; the sole cause behind everything visible and invisible; the creator of the entire universe. God is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient and self-evident. God has no beginning and no end.
Q3. If Hindus believe in one God, then who are the numerous gods and goddesses they worship in their temples?
A. The concept that Hindus worship many gods is a myth. It stems from the misunderstanding of Hindus’ unique approach to worshipping God which can be explained in two ways.
God has endless attributes and aspects. Although God is formless, to make worshipping more tangible and focused for ordinary Hindus, many forms and names were given to each of God’s major attributes and aspects. For example, God creates, sustains and dissolves this world; each of these three aspects or functions is represented in a beautiful image, and worshipped as Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the sustainer) and Shiva (the dissolver), respectively. This concept is similar to the Christians’ worship of the holy trinity- the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. It would be false to say that Christians believe in three gods.
The Bhagawata school of thought teaches that there are different divine beings or demigods who live in unseen worlds and serve God. They are empowered by and subordinate to God. Again, Hindus have male and female names and images for these demigods whose worship is recommended, but not mandatory, for specific benedictions. This idea can be compared to the Christians’ belief in guiding angels.
It must be emphasized that the above mentioned ideas cater to the needs of the aspirants who are at a lower level in the beginning of their spiritual quest. Those who evolve to a higher stage do not require such aids to worship. Many Hindus do not believe in any of the above concepts, and worship a formless and abstract God.
Q4. Hindus identify with an all-present soul. How does Hinduism define the soul?
A. The Soul is the innermost essence, the true existence and identity of a being. Hindus call this subtle, conscious, invisible life-force Atman. Living beings possess consciousness due to the presence of the soul in their bodies. The Soul is not to be confused with body or mind. In fact, the soul manifests itself as the energy or the life-giving force of the body. The human soul is called Jivatma or “Self”. Life starts when a soul enters the body. The human body perishes but the soul is immortal.
Q5. What is the source or origin of the soul?
A. God, also called the Supreme Soul, is the source and origin of the soul. If the soul is the energy that runs the body, God is the total sum of that energy. If God is the fire, an individual soul is its tiny spark. Since the soul is a ‘fraction’ of God, all living beings are His manifestations. That is why Hindus see divinity in every living thing.
Q6. What is Karma?
A. In Hinduism, Karma refers to God’s cosmic law of cause and effect; every action has its opposite and equal reaction. Any deed or any thought that causes an effect, is called Karma. According to the Law of Karma, every individual is accountable for his or her own actions, thoughts and words. God does not give us Karma; the individual creates his/her own. Each person reaps the good or bad fruits in accordance with the good or bad Karma accumulated during past and present lives. Therefore, each individual is responsible for the pleasures and pains he/she experiences in this world; as one sows so shall one reap. In this manner, each person has the freedom to shape his/her own destiny through good or bad Karma.
Q7. What is the Hindu concept of reincarnation?
A. The word reincarnation literally means the transmigration of souls. Hindus believe that the soul is immortal, and when a person dies, his/her soul re-enters a new (as yet unborn) body. “Just as a person discards old and tattered clothes and puts on new ones, the soul casts off the weak body and enters a new one.” (Gita: 2.22). This concept of transmigration of souls or life after death is intertwined with the Law of Karma. The Karma one acquires in this life will determine one’s future birth. What the individual is in this life is the result of his/her past life.
Q8. Can there be release from the continuous cycle of death and birth?
A. Yes, there is a way out. One keeps returning to this world until all of one’s Karma are resolved. Human life offers the best opportunity to redeem a person through spiritual evolution. It may take more than one human birth to reach such a high level of spiritual maturity and perfection where the slate of Karmas is totally clean. At that point, the soul is released from the cycle rebirth, and merges back into its original source, the Supreme Soul. Hindus call this state of liberation or release, Moksha, or Mukti. Buddhism, an off-shoot of Hinduism calls it Nirvana. According to Hinduism, the main purpose of human life is to attain Moksha that offers immortality, eternal peace and supreme bliss.
Q9. What methods are recommended in Hinduism to attain Moksha?
A. Since humans differ in intellectual abilities, temperaments and inclinations, there cannot be a single path recommended for everyone. Hinduism recommends four paths to obtain Moksha:
Karma Yoga (Path of Action): Performing and accepting one’s daily duties selflessly and entirely dedicated to God.
Dhayana Yoga (Path of Meditation): By achieving one-pointedness and concentrated attention through meditation, a purified soul is in communion with its origin, the Supreme Soul.
Jnana Yoga (Path of Spiritual Insight): Discovering the true self through spiritual enlightenment and realising the identity of the individual soul with the Supreme Soul.
Bhakti Yoga (Path of Devotion): Bhakti is the intense love of God, and totally surrendering one’s self to Him. It is expressed through prayers, ritual worship, chanting God’s name and singing His glory.
To achieve Moksha, one can follow any one of the four paths or any combination of them. In practice, once a person follows one path, he or she becomes automatically interested in the other three.
Q10. Hinduism seems to be concerned primarily with God, the soul, the next life and liberation. What about the life on this earth?
A. To say that Hinduism is concerned only with life hereafter is a fallacy. Hinduism is a religion for worldly people. It has plenty to say about life in this world; that is why Hinduism is called a way of life. One can pursue the ultimate goal of Moksha while living a normal life. To achieve Moksha, one has to follow three other goals as a necessary process:
Artha (Economic Activities): It means to acquire wealth through hard work, fair means and without excess. By participating in economic activities, not only does one satisfy one’s personal and family needs, but one also contributes to the welfare of the whole society. Hindus are recommended to donate ten percent of their income to charitable causes.
Kama (Worldly Desires): Kama is defined as satisfaction of normal human desires, including sex. This goal needs to be followed very cautiously within the confines of the Scriptures, and one should not become totally obsessed with sensual gratification.
Dharma: The meaning of Dharma has already been explained. While participating in economic activities and satisfying human desires, one must be virtuous, live righteously and discharge all moral obligations.
Q11. Does Hinduism say that one cannot attain “Moksha” (salvation) without becoming a Hindu?
A. No, it does not. Hindus believe that there are many paths to God, although some may be longer and more complex than others. Therefore, all religions are different pathways that lead to the same destination. According to Hinduism, all living beings will eventually merge back to their original source, the Supreme Soul, no matter what path they may choose to take. That is why Hindus are expected to respect all religions.
Q12. Do Hindus believe in heaven and hell?
A. Yes, they do, but the Hindu concept of heaven and hell is entirely different from the Judeo-Christian belief.
According to Hinduism, heaven is not a physical place where a person goes after death to enjoy pleasures as a reward for living a virtuous life on this earth. In Hinduism, the heaven, called Svarga, is a state of super consciousness, blessedness and bliss that exists within the human body. It can be experienced by a spiritually matured person during the heightened intensity of meditation. Heaven is also an invisible, subtle world where a soul rests and learns between births. But a soul that has attained Moksha remains there to evolve and merge with its source of origin, the Supreme Soul.
In Hinduism, hell is not a place where a sinner’s soul is tortured and burned by the eternal fire, without any hope of ever joining God. Hindus believe that hell, called Naraka, is an unhappy, tormented and distressful state of mind experienced during physical existence on this earth. This state of consciousness can also be experienced by a soul after death and before taking the next birth. Hindus consider hell a temporary condition of one’s own creation. One can reverse this situation by following a spiritual path and attaining good Karma.
Q13. Hindus believe that the world is an illusion. Isn’t this an absurd idea?
A. It is not an absurd idea, if one understands the correct meaning of the Sanskrit word Maya, meaning illusion. The confusion in comprehending the Hindus’ doctrine of Maya stems from thinking that illusion means the same thing as hallucination or delusion. Hindus use the word illusion in the same sense as defined in any dictionary: a mistaken perception of reality. When Hindus speak of this material world being an illusion, they are not saying that the world does not exist. Instead, they refer to the mistaken perception of the world, that is, thinking that the material world is separate from God. The material world does exist, even if it may be God’s temporary manifestation.
Q14. Do Hindus have sacraments and rituals like other religions?
A. Yes, of course, they do. Hindus call them Sanskaras or Samskaras which means the actions that purify, refine or reform. Sanskaras help Hindus in their spiritual evolution. Like the traffic signs on the highways, they give direction to human life at every crucial stage of development. Sixteen ceremonies are prescribed for Hindus starting at conception and ending at death. Most Hindus follow only the major ceremonies: Jatakarma (welcoming the newly born child to this world); Namakarna (name giving); Choodakarma (first head-shaving ceremony); Upanayana (initiation of spiritual education and vow of celibacy during the studentship); Vivaha (Wedding) and Antyesthi (funeral).
Q15. Do Hindus have moral codes or commandments?
A. As previously explained, the definition of the word “Dharma” itself includes moral obligations and righteous behaviour. The basic virtues Hindus are prescribed to cultivate and practise are: Patience, Forgiveness, Self-Control, Cleanliness, Control of the Senses, Wisdom, Knowledge, Truthfulness, Non-violence, Charity, Honesty and Love. Without these qualities, humans are like beasts.
Q16. Why is the cow considered sacred by Hindus?
A. Hindus regard all living beings, including animals, birds and insects, as sacred and having souls. As such, Hindus must not kill or cause physical or emotional pain to any living creature, be it a human, animal, bird or insect. This attitude, showing compassion towards God’s creation, is known as Ahinsa or Ahimsa meaning non-violence.
Hindus hold special reverence for the cow as it symbolically represents our biological mother. Just like our mother, the cow is vital to the sustenance of human life; it gives milk, cream, butter, cheese and so many other nourishing food products. In traditional agricultural societies like India, the cow has been a valuable economic resource: it produces bullocks to plough the fields and pull the carts. Dried-up cow dung is used as domestic fuel and as cement to make mud huts. In rural India, a family’s wealth is measured by the number of cows it possesses. To Hindus, it does not make sense to destroy such a valuable economic resource. For this reason, cow protection is actively promoted and beef eating is condemned. It is perfectly normal to show affection and compassion for a valuable animal like the cow.
Q17. Are Hindus allowed to criticize their religion?
A. The freedom to express one’s thoughts and propagate them is enshrined in the Vedas, the Hindu scriptures. Logical scrutiny, open discussion and investigation of Hindu beliefs is not only permitted in Hinduism, but also encouraged and welcomed. Every Hindu has the freedom to question or challenge his or her beliefs and practices, without any fear of reprisal or accusation of blasphemy. Hindus are very proud of this ancient tradition.
Q18. How does Hinduism view religious conversion?
A. Tolerance towards other faiths is the corner stone of Hinduism. It does not claim to be the only path to God. “All religions are equal”, declare Hindu scriptures. Despite theological differences, all religions have the same goal- to uplift the human soul and guide it to the source of its origin. Therefore, they see no sense in encouraging and promoting religious conversion. Hindus are often critical of proselytizing, foreign, missionaries who covertly prey on poor people in third world countries. They feel that using material aid to lure poor people of other religions to conversion is an unethical practice.
Q19. How can a non-Hindu become a Hindu?
A. Any person who voluntarily accepts Hindu beliefs and philosophy of life can consider himself or herself a Hindu. It is not mandatory to be initiated into Hinduism, to adopt a Hindu name nor to become a member of a Hindu temple.
Q20. Can a non-Hindu enter a Hindu temple?
A. Yes, a non-Hindu may enter a Hindu temple. Hindu temples are open to people of all religions. However, devotees and guests are required to follow the same rules. Shoes must be removed at the entrance. Smoking is not allowed. One must not be under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Q21. Is there a central authority in India to whom all Hindu temples in the world are accountable?
A. No, there is not. Hindu temples are independent and community-based. They are built with public donations, and are run by democratically elected management bodies.